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THEATER OF MURDER

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By RENELAINE BONTOL-PFISTER

“Yes, of course, Mr. Evans, I understand. I’ll be available in three hours. Okay. Goodbye,” Gus said, hanging up the phone.
The truth was, he was annoyed that his meeting got pushed back. He’d gotten up early and missed going to the gym for this meeting that Evans delayed. But he had no choice. Evans was his client.

Now he had nothing to do for a few hours. He decided to just walk. It was a nice day, after all. He passed by an opening that led down narrow steps that disappeared into the darkness below. There was a small, standing billboard at street level. The poster there was just red, with the words Theater of Murder in black letters. Nothing else. No reviews, no actors’ names were included.
Cryptic, he thought.

A few people glanced at the simple poster and went down the steps without hesitation.
For want of anything to do, he decided to see the production. The worst that could happen was he’d be bored and he’d leave quietly.
He descended what seemed like a hundred steps, with barely any light to illuminate the way. Finally, he came up to a door. A young woman dressed in a black suit and white shirt was standing at the door.

“How much?” Gus asked, assuming she was the ticket person.
“Go on in, sir, it’s free,” she replied with a smile.
A free play? Wow, that’s not common in New York.
He entered the small theater and sat at the back, close to the door, so he could exit at his leisure. There were only about 50 seats, arranged in a semi-circle around the stage, but it was full.

The lights dimmed. Gus turned his head and saw that the young woman at the door had shut it. He heard a click.
A spotlight turned onstage at a middle-aged man dressed in a pin-striped gray suit.
He had a deep tan and his long hair was slicked back behind his ears.

“Welcome, to the Theater of Murder,” he said, his arms wide open. “My name is Stan, and I’ll be your host this afternoon.” His voice had the chirpy tone of a game show host.
“Now, you may wonder, what is the Theater of Murder? Well, this is the only theater in all of New York where someone is murdered as you all watch. Isn’t that exciting?”
The audience members glanced at one another, unsure of how to respond. Some laughed nervously, others murmured.

“Yes, yes, you heard it right. You will all witness a murder, right here onstage!”
Gus frowned. He wasn’t sure he liked this kind of show, one that played with your mind.
“And who will be murdered? Well, that’s the best part…” Stan walked around the stage and looked at everybody in the audience. His gaze glided over Gus, who felt chills all of a sudden. Stan stopped. “It’s one of you.”

THEATRE-OF-MURDERSome people stood up and headed for the door. Gus was about to stand up and follow them when one man, in his late 60s, pushed on the door.
“It’s locked!” he yelled in a panicked voice. His companion, who appeared to be his wife, whimpered. She, too, began pushing on the bolted door.
Three others rapped and pounded on the door.

“Hey, let us out!”
“Somebody open this door!”
“You can’t keep us here!”
“Once you come in, you must stay for the whole performance,” Stan called out to them.
This is some sick show, Gus thought.
“Please return to your seats so we can resume,” Stan said politely.
The people at the door slowly walked back to their seats, bewildered. Scared.
“So, this is a crucial part of the show,” Stan said, once the theater was quiet again. He paced back and forth across the stage. “Who shall we pick today?” His eyes swept over the audience once again.

Gus could see the discomfort in his fellow patrons’ faces. He felt it too.
Suddenly, Stan stopped. He was looking straight at Gus. He pointed a finger at him. “You, sir. It’s your lucky day!”
Gus’s heart beat louder, and beads of sweat formed on his temples.

“Please stand up!” Stan boomed.
Shaking, Gus slowly stood up.
“Oh no, no. Not you, sir,” Stan said. “The young man in the gray hoodie.”
Gus looked at the man to his right.

“Oh my God,” the man exclaimed, rooted to his seat.
Stan guffawed. “Oh, God can’t help you now. He never does!”
Two large men dressed all in black marched to Gus’s row and picked up the trembling young man. They dragged him onstage and sat him down on a stool.
“What’s your name?” Stan asked, still cheerful.

“Casey,” the man answered. He was curly haired and his hoodie said NYU.
“You attend NYU, Casey?” Stan asked, his voice lilting.
“Y-y-y-yes.” His eyes were wide. He looked like he couldn’t believe he was there.
“And why aren’t you in school right now?” Stan sounded like a radio interviewer.
“I c-c-cut cl-class…” Casey replied. He was moving his hands up and down his thighs, wiping them on his jeans.
Stan laughed again. “Cutting class, huh? Your poor parents. Do they know you’re wasting their hard-earned money right now? Well, that deserves punishment, don’t you think, folks?”
Dead silence.

“So! Let’s get this show on the road!” Stan boomed.
One of the goons who’d handled Casey earlier reappeared onstage, this time wheeling a tray table with a covered plate.
With a flourish, Stan uncovered the plate. He picked up an eight-inch steel knife, similar to one that Gus has in his kitchen.
“This is a Pro S knife, made in Germany,” Stan said, holding the knife over his head and walking from one end of the stage to the other. “This is one of the sharpest knives in the world.”

In the next moment, he swiftly walked over to Casey and plunged the knife into his heart, as the audience collectively gasped. Casey’s eyes widened, and he was holding his breath. Stan was kneeling in front of him, unmoving, keeping the knife steady in his chest.
The audience members moaned, cried out, and sobbed. Gus’s heart was beating so hard in his chest he thought it reverberated throughout the theater.

Finally, mercifully, Casey’s eyes closed. Blood seeped through the NYU letters of his sweatshirt.
Stan stood up, leaving the knife still buried in Casey’s chest. The two goons returned onstage and whisked him away, still sitting in the chair.
There was restrained sobbing from the audience, but otherwise it was silent in the theater.
“That was exciting, wasn’t it?” Stan asked in the same jolly voice. He looked at the audience expectantly. “What, no applause?”
The audience glanced at one another, eyes red and streaked with tears. Gus tentatively clapped his hands, out of fear. Others followed suit. The applause was scattered and weak.

“Well, thank you, thank you very much,” Stan said, bowing. He straightened up. “That’s the end of our show. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Gus shot up from his seat and got to the door first. His heart still hammering, he pushed on the bar, and the door easily opened. The others sighed with relief and filed toward the door.

“Oh, before you leave,” Stan said, and they all froze. “Don’t forget any of your belongings.”
The entire audience huddled close together and not one said a word as they ascended back up to the street.
Gus wondered if they were thinking the same thing. Was it real or was it a morbid show? Was Casey part of the cast, a trained actor? Were they all laughing backstage at the shock they elicited from the audience?
Most important, like him, were they relieved it was Casey who got picked?

 

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